Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Death star

Every year Science Magazine and the National Science Foundation team up to run a competition to recognize the most effective and cutting-edge efforts at visualizing scientific data, principles, or ideas. Here is this year's winner, a cutaway computer model of the HIV virus (you can read about what you are seeing here) by Ivan Konstantinov, Yury Stefanov, Aleksander Kovalevsky, and Yegor Voronin.

I borrow here from my daughter's blog. She claims to see a resemblance to the Star Wars Death Star, and acknowledges a chill down the spine. I know the infernal colors are artificial, but I can't look at this image without thinking of Hieronymus Bosch's Hell. A bit more of a reach, I know, but there you have it.

A thousand of these viral particles could line up across the period at the end of this sentence. A shell of proteins and lipids. Inside, the genome, two copies of single-stranded RNA and the enzymes necessary for viral replication.

What human misery this virus has caused. What a wealth of creative talent cut short! What a slaughter of innocents! Bosch believed demons were afoot in the world, the Devil's minions. No, what is afoot -- these minute Death Stars -- is utterly amoral. RNA replication has perhaps been going on since before DNA replication appeared on the scene. Is a virus alive? It can only reproduce inside a host cell. It needs us as much as we need cows and potatoes. More. Its needs are more specific. It's a dog-eat-dog world we live in. Sometimes we are the eaters. Sometimes we are the eaten.

But we are not without resources, not least the science that can image and fight the virus. And moral consciousness.